There are two parts to personality: temperament and character. Temperament is what we are born with; it emerges from biological codes in our genes as we develop. Examples include:
1) How much sleep we need
2) How much we avoid danger or seek out new situations
3) How much we persist; how easily we let go
Character, in contrast, comes not from our genetics but from our experience of life. It is influenced by culture, upbringing, friendships and major life events. Character and temperament overlap and influence each other: there is no clean line separating nature from nurture.
Temperament and Mood
Research has identified four temperaments that are associated with mood disorders: hyperthymic, cyclothymic, dysthymic and irritable. This research is still limited: not everyone who has these temperaments will develop a mood disorder, and many people with mood disorders do not have these temperaments.
Understanding your temperament can help in the treatment of mood. Once you’ve recovered from a mood episode, it’s likely you’ll return to your baseline temperament. Knowing where this baseline is can help you separate your mood from yourself, and prevent overuse of medication to treat what is not a disorder.
Knowing your temperament can also help you build a life which suites it. A good match will allow you to capitalize on its strengths while moderating its limitations. Self-awareness is the first step, and making wise and sometimes difficult choices to create a good future is the next. The path you carve may be a creative one and conventional molds may not fit. Through this, you may come to a greater acceptance of yourself and of those whose temperament differs from yours.
Hyperthymic is a Greek word for “elevated mood.” People with hyperthymia are leaders and lovers of life. Their enjoyment brings joy to others, yet even hyperthymia can have drawbacks.
Cheerful, optimistic, confident, extraverted, high energy, productive, generous. You may get by on little sleep (less than 6 hours). Sex drive can be high. You make friends easily and often inspire the best in others. You are good at finding the best in things, and don’t give up easily.
Irritable, impatient, distracted, seeking out too many new things. Your confidence can turn to overconfidence. You tend to take charge, which can cause conflict when others disagree. You care about others, but may get overly involved – controlling or meddlesome – in their lives. You may go too far in the pleasures of life, whether food, sex or alcohol. It may be hard to keep up the routine of high energy and little sleep in middle age or later life, and disruptions of sleep or travel may impact your mood. You may get misdiagnosed as “ADHD.”
Cyclothymia is the Greek word for “cycles of mood” and describes people whose moods change frequently and unpredictably throughout their life. It is described in more detail on a separate page. Of all the temperaments, cyclothymia is most closely linked to bipolar disorder.
Broad interests and experiences, spontaneous, creative, lively, skeptical. Able to relate to many kinds of people. Sometimes your ideas are great, your emotions deep and your sensations vivid. This can lead to powerful insights and artistic creations.
Unpredictable moods (anxiety, depression, irritability, insomnia and energetic enthusiasm). The changes in mood make it hard to maintain perspective. You may feel confident one day, hopeless and insecure the next. Decisions may be impulsive, including those involving relationships, shopping and jobs. It may be easy to start things but hard to follow through with them. Some people with cyclothymia hide the darker shades of their mood, which can make them feel like no one really knows them.
This temperament is characterized by a long-standing level of low-grade depression. Most people with dysthymia will also experience full depression at some point in their life.
Dedicated, hard-working, conscientious, moral, dependable, organized, humble. Your ability to see your own faults clearly can be a strength or a set-back.
Sad, low energy, self critical, worried/anxious, difficulty adjusting to change, high need for sleep (9 or more hours/day).
Compared to the other four temperaments, less is known about this type, which describes people who are often irritable and mistrustful of others.
Skeptical, scientific, protective. It’s hard for others to fool you. You may be a non-conformist, and take important stands that others are not comfortable taking. You are likely loyal to those in your inner circle.
Irritability, anxiety, inner restlessness. Complaining, sarcastic. Tend to see the worst in the motivations of others. People with irritable temperaments have to walk a fine line: they need others, yet they are irritated by them. To avoid isolation, they need to hold on to the people they respect and trust.
—Updated 12/23/16 by Chris Aiken, MD